WINTHROP — For James Cognata, it was a history-making afternoon.

The 14-year-old set a pair of state records Saturday at the USA Track and Field Maine Youth Outdoor Championships, taking first in the 400-meter dash in the 13-14 age range at 54.22 seconds. Moments later, he had the top spot on the podium again, following a winning run in the 200 at 24.49.

“(The goal) was just to sort of try to win one or two of them,” Cognata said. “I didn’t really expect to get the state record. That was the goal, but it was an outside goal.”

James Cognata poses by the track at the Winthrop Grade School on Monday. Cognata had an impressive showing at the USATF Maine Youth Development Summer Series state championship meet last weekend in Brewer. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The feeling of accomplishing it, however, was hardly new. Two months ago and over 300 miles away, Cognata won state titles in New Jersey in vastly different events — the 800 and 1,500 — at the USATF Junior Olympic state championships, with times of 2:05.88 and 4:24.85, respectively. Those times would’ve also have set state marks in the 13-14 range in Maine.

It all added up to a regional championships berth, and then an appearance at the national Junior Olympic championships in July for a second straight year.

Two different states. Two different USATF events. Two big-time performances while competing in a unique mix of sprints and distance.


“It is really cool,” Cognata said. “I’ve never been able to do something like this in my life. It feels like everything’s falling into place now, everything that I’ve been working for.”

Now, after moving to Winthrop, Cognata is ready to turn his focus to Maine’s high school competition as a cross country and track athlete at Winthrop High School.

“He’s had some good times, and to set some state records in a new state, that’s quite impressive,” USATF Maine secretary Mark Dennett said. “He definitely has some good promise. … He’s an athlete. It’s good to see that come in here to Maine.”

Cognata grew up in Winthrop and lived there until 2015, but it was in New Jersey where he got into track and began to turn a hobby into a serious pursuit.

“I started to do real training. … Two workouts a week, like a track workout, and four days a week I’d do five miles,” he said. “A track workout would be maybe four or five 400s at a set pace time, a certain distance set at a pace time and I try to hit the pace. Enough to push me to build speed, and the five miles to build endurance and stamina.”

Cognata performed well enough last year at the state and regional levels to earn a trip to the nationals in Iowa, where he saw what the best of the best look like — and more importantly, how they run.


I sort of got destroyed. I got my doors blown off,” said Cognata, who competed in the 400. “I sort of realized what I was up against. Those guys were all built, some of them were even 6 feet, humongous, almost bodybuilders. So I sort of gravitated toward the distance because I think with the distance, it’s not as much that you need to be big and strong, you need to train.”

Even after shifting his focus to the distance events, Cognata kept up his sprintwork, maintaining a strong finishing kick that he said has become one of his greatest advantages.

I think it plays in my favor that I have that diversity,” he said. “I’m one of the only people there that’s also a sprinter, so I can just kick right past them. Not all of them have that speed, they just have the endurance.”

This year, that work showed itself, as Cognata won the two titles in New Jersey, then won the 800 and was second in the 1,500 at the Region 2 championships in Slippery Rock, Penn., where he competed against the best athletes from the Mid-Atlantic.

It boosted my confidence a lot,” he said. “It felt like everything I’d been doing paid off.”

At the nationals in Sacramento, California, however, Cognata’s summer hit a sour note. He placed ninth in the 800, finishing .077 seconds from eighth place and All-American status.


For some reason, I couldn’t hit my best times. It was weird,” said Cognata. “I just couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t there that day.”

Cognata found his chance for redemption in his new home. He moved after finishing middle school in May and began working with Winthrop track and cross country coach Ed Van Tassel, and found himself on the track Saturday in Brewer for the summer state championship meet with a chance to add medals from another state to the summer’s collection.

Hours later, he had those victories — and new state marks to his name.

It was a little bit sort of heartbreaking at the nationals,” he said, “but to come back and do this here, it was a big uplifter.”

Going into his freshman year, the kid with times good enough to hold three Maine USATF youth records is poised to be a runner to watch right away, both in the fall and the spring.

“He definitely should be making a mark for himself,” USATF youth athletic chairman Ron Kelly said. “He should be one of the best freshman distance runners.”

Cognata already has high goals. His target for the spring in the 800 is Wells’s Griffin Allaire, who won the High School Mile at the Beach to Beacon.

I’m really gunning for him, I’m trying to get him in the state championship,” Cognata said. “I’m going to try to beat him in the 800. I don’t think I would be able to get him in the mile, but he’s a senior and I want to try to race him before he goes because he’s really good.”

Those are high expectations. But Cognata has shown he has a knack for going against the best.

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